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On World Mental Health Day, NHS England has announced a new taskforce to improve children’s mental health hospitals - and wider mental health support in England. The plan was unveiled by NHS England Chief Executive, Simon Stevens, during a speech at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

The new taskforce will concentrate on the way that autistic children and children with a learning disability or mental health problem end up in hospital, often for long periods and far away from their families and friends. It will be instructed to make rapid improvements in the quality of existing mental health hospitals for children under 18 years old. It will also look at what better support outside of hospital should look like.

Anne Longfield OBE, the Children’s Commissioner in England, will chair an independent oversight board to scrutinise and support the work of the taskforce. Anne has looked into this important issue over the last year.

Alongside autistic people and their families, our charity has been campaigning to end this scandal. Together, we have made clear that autistic children and young people need support in their homes, not hospitals.

Despite repeated promises from different governments and NHS England’s Transforming Care programme, the number of autistic people reported in mental health hospitals has increased significantly – and the number of autistic children or children with a learning disability has doubled. And we continue to hear disturbing stories of people being restrained, over-medicated and kept in isolation.

Alongside autistic campaigner Alexis Quinn, we delivered a petition of over 200,000 signatures to 10 Downing Street in August, calling for the Government and NHS to take action to end this crisis by:

  • committing money to set up the right community services for autistic people and people with a learning disability - and making sure that this is ring-fenced
  • changing the wording of the definition of ‘mental disorder’ in the Mental Health Act, which currently includes autism and learning disabilities
  • establishing accountability right across Government to make sure this happens.

Today’s announcement is a welcome step in the right direction. However, in order to make a difference to the lives of all autistic people (including adults) NHS England must make sure that it has the power and resources to improve support across the country.

Reaction

Jane Harris, Director of External Affairs at the National Autistic Society, said: “This new taskforce is a welcome step which could help end the scandal of autistic people being stuck in mental health hospitals.

“We continue to hear disturbing stories of autistic children and adults being detained for long periods of time, miles away from their family - and even overmedicated, inappropriately restrained, and kept in isolation. In fact, in recent years the number of children on the autism spectrum or with a learning disability reported in these hospitals has doubled. If you’re autistic, being in hospital can be traumatic in itself – let alone in these circumstances.

“A recent inquiry by MPs and Lords found that a major problem is the lack of community support – there’s nowhere for people to go when they're ready to leave hospital or to stop them being admitted in the first place. Autistic people and families have been highlighting this scandal and calling for action for years, including the 200,000 people who signed our recent petition with autistic campaigner Alexis Quinn.

“We are pleased that their calls are being heard but we’ve heard lots of promises before. This time, it has to lead to good community services in every area of the country, from professionals who understand autism. And there has to be plans for autistic adults, who are also stuck in this situation.

We will be ready to work with the new taskforce in whatever way we can to make sure it makes a difference to autistic people and their families.

Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive said: “This taskforce will place a spotlight on services and care for some of the most vulnerable young people in our society, bringing together families, leading clinicians, charities, and other public bodies to help make these services as effective, safe and supportive as possible for thousands of families.

“The NHS Long Term Plan lays out a package of measures which will mean more than two million extra children and adults get the mental health care they need and while early intervention to stop ill health escalating is a priority, we are also determined to provide the strongest possible safety net for families living with the most acute conditions.”

Anne Longfield OBE, Children’s Commissioner, said: “Research published by my office earlier this year found that far too many children are stuck in hospital for months or even years when they do not need to be there. I am pleased that this taskforce has been announced to change this unacceptable situation, and I am delighted to Chair this Independent Oversight Group to amplify the voice of these children and their families, scrutinise progress and hold the system to account.”

Further information

  • Read more stories about autistic people who’ve been stuck in inpatient care in our Transforming Care: our stories report and find out about the extent of the scandal in our Beyond Transforming Care report.
  • For information about what to do if an autistic family member is at risk or has been admitted to or discharged from a mental health hospital, visit our page on autism and mental health.
  • Bringing us Together have produced this very useful Survival Guide for care and treatment reviews.
  • The All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism, with support from our charity, held an inquiry into the state of support and services for autistic people in England – 10 years on from the Autism Act.
  • In early 2020 we will launch our Autism Inpatient Mental Health Advice and Casework service. Right now, we’re starting recruitment. You can read more and apply on our website.